March 22, 1995

Michelle Locke
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO - Behind the non-descript door is no ordinary smoky dive.

If your nose doesn't detect the sweet smell of marijuana, the sign behind the bar says it all: "Thank you for pot smoking."

At the San Francisco Cannabis Buyer's Club, AIDS, cancer and glaucoma patients come to buy and smoke the illegal weed they say is one of the few things that gives them relief.

"This is about love," said Dennis Peron, who founded the club after his partner died of AIDS in 1990. "People in the autumn, in the sunset of their lives, have a right to any medicine that helps them feel better."

In 1992, the city's board of supervisors, in a unanimous resolution signed by Mayor Frank Jordan, ordered police and the district attorney to make enforcing laws against marijuana as medicine their lowest priority.

"The mayor supports medicinal use of marijuana as long as it's under the supervision of a doctor," said Jordan spokesman Meredith Halpern.

To join the club, you have to produce a photo ID and a doctor's letter certifying a condition that could be alleviated by pot.

The club, on the second story of a drab building near the Castro, San Francisco's mostly gay district, buys in bulk and sells at a small markup.

Since the drug is purchased underground, it's more expensive than growing your own, and members are charged $5 to $25 a gram. But Peron said that's about 50-per-cent cheaper that street prices.

Similar clubs have been formed in major U.S. Cities in recent year, said Bob Randall of the Washington-based Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics. But he wouldn't say where or how many, because the clubs are illegal.

On a recent morning, the clientele at the non-profit San Francisco club reflected the democratizing power of disease.

Old, young, black, brown, white, well-dressed and grungy were all represented in the 50 to 100 people sitting at small tables or lounging on couches as candles glowed dimly through the haze and a stereo pounded out hits from the 1970s.

Hazel, a 75-year-old retired office manager, said she takes a couple of tokes a day, just enough to relieve the pressure in her eyes from glaucoma but not so much that she gets that "very uncomfortable" feeling of being high.

Michael, who has Hodgkin's disease, stops by every two weeks for the only cure he's found for the waves of nausea that follow his chemotherapy.

Bob, a 36-year-old AIDS patient whose face is covered with dark lesions of Kaposi's sarcoma, said he comes to the club for the marijuana that keeps his appetite up and the support boosts his spirit.

"I love the interaction," he said. "I draw from it. I've met some of my best friends now from this club."

At one counter, volunteers sold food made with pot for those who can't smoke, including brownies, cookies, spice cake and Merry Pills, high-grade marijuana soaked in olive oil and encapsulated.

Advocates say marijuana eases nausea and loss of appetite caused by cancer and AIDS treatments, relieves muscle spasms in people with spinal-cord injuries or multiple sclerosis, and alleviates the pressure that blinds glaucoma sufferers.

Opponents say those assertions are unverified.